NextGen Datacasting: There's Money to be Made

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Over-the-air television distribution as a business is at a tipping point. No one has ever invented a  more efficient way to distribute content to mass audiences. At the same time, it is existential that  broadcasters rethink how we are using our core asset—the spectrum that carries our TV channels—to  provide that distribution. 

Yes, we will continue to serve the public by providing free-to-air local and  national news, information and entertainment programming that is the quid pro quo for our licenses  to use that spectrum. It’s a good business. But it is plateauing. Embracing the other uses of that  spectrum—datacasting uses—will be critical to growing our industry, supporting the existing model  and venturing into whole new experiences that ensure our relevance in a world dominated by the  internet services of big technology companies. Wired and wireless! 

Within 15 years, broadcasters will make as much money selling their bits for data distribution as they will for selling commercial ads in TV programs."

Status quo is not an option. And reliance on a diginet business model to augment our over-the-air  revenues will be insufficient to ensure our long-term survival. Niche rerun channels will not be the  savior of our current business model. It’s good-tasting candy when we really need a banquet of  nourishing food to grow. 

To mix metaphors, why rent out spare bedrooms in a single-family home  when we can erect a skyscraper on the same chunk of land using the ground floor to live in and renting  the upper stories to multiple businesses? That is the spectrum reuse enabled by NextGen  Broadcasting. That is what datacasting is all about. 

Making the Most of Spectrum
KEY: Deploying NextGen Broadcast (ATSC 3.0) capabilities and providing multiple  non-TV use-cases will be critical to sustaining our ability to remain in the content  distribution business. 

Across industries and around the world, virtually every spectrum  user is constantly striving to improve service offerings with existing spectrum. The beauty of the IP based NextGen Broadcast transmission standard is that broadcast spectrum can be used for so much  more than simple delivery of one-way, unenhanced television program streams. 

It needs to be seen  as an essential element of internet distribution that has never-before been possible. In economic terms,  this is the market’s way of maximizing productivity and is the essence of how spectrum can be used  most effectively. In business terms, it permits broadcasters to match and exceed the best features of  competing video delivery platforms while also bringing new services to the public that will provide  new revenue streams. 

This has been a part of the “digital promise” since broadcasters converted from  analog transmissions and has been anticipated by regulators and broadcasters alike for many years.  Developments to-date justify analysts’ predictions that, in the next decade, broadcasters will develop  a third revenue stream as robust as advertising and retransmission fees for the content we produce or  license.  

The government-defined deployment rules, however, complicate this promise. Rather than providing  temporary additional spectrum to ease the transformation to this remarkable IP-based broadcast  service, the deployment plan is hampered by a requirement that broadcasters simulcast programming  in both the current ATSC 1.0 and new NextGen Broadcast standards. 

That process eats up virtually  all of the NextGen digital capacity earmarked for new services. It’s like trying to grow new sequoia  trees but having to contend with dwarf, bonsai tree clipping protocols. That needs to end.

Spectrum Aggregation
KEY: To be clear, that means that broadcasters must have complete and unfettered  access to all of their digital capacity, not just the remnants left over after hosting our  competitors on our broadcast towers. And that means a sunsetting of the 1.0  simulcasting rules as soon as possible. 

While individual broadcasters will use a portion of their NextGen  spectrum capacity for enhanced traditional linear video services, they may use any “excess” capacity  for other offerings. Those offerings can include advanced features such as ultra-high definition and  high dynamic range video and immersive audio. 

They can also include datacasting. Scaling that  service on a regional and national basis will require broadcasters to aggregate their capacity and offer  it for non-video use cases. The fundamental mission of BitPath, the joint venture between Nexstar  and Sinclair, is this aggregation process. The possible use cases for this one-to-many datacasting  service are limited only by imagination. 

The most promising of several initial data uses include in-vehicle video entertainment enhanced and telematics.

 The NextGen  Broadcast standard is uniquely designed to synergize OTA broadcast and broadband 5G services.  Nowhere will this be more immediately beneficial than in automobile servicing. Recent  demonstrations by CAST.ERA, a joint venture between Sinclair Broadcast Group and SK Telecom  from Korea, and Hyundai Mobis highlighted in-vehicle video entertainment with enhanced geo targeting capabilities, including hyper-local, location-based, targeted ad and content insertions.  

Connected vehicles are rolling computers that need servicing. Using NextGen Broadcast capabilities,  providers of data services to vehicles will be able to deliver software updates simultaneously to an  infinite number of IoT devices in their smart vehicles to upgrade software for new functionality,  infotainment, bug fixes, and navigation. Safety updates can be delivered within hours, not days.  

Services can be provided to hundreds of thousands of devices instantly and simultaneously with no  network slowdowns since broadcast architecture is not subject to cell phone network bottlenecks. Live  updating of 3D mapping, for example, requires huge amounts of data so that autonomous driving vehicles  don’t bump into things. 

You can’t do that with WiFi. You can’t do that via a spotty cell phone system.  You can do that through a robust, one-to-many broadcast system. And broadcasters with complete access  to their NextGen IP capacity will be perfectly positioned to provide those needed services.  

Content Distribution Offload
KEY: Positioning the broadcast industry to take advantage of these new services  requires thoughtful advance planning to deploy NextGen Broadcast capability now,  not some date in the future. Accelerating the deployment is essential. 

Well over 80% of all consumer Internet traffic  today is for video with more than 1.1 million minutes of video streamed or downloaded every second.  Those are one-to-one events. In other words, streaming a 1 GB movie to 50 million people would  consume 50 million GB of spectrum capacity. 

That’s extraordinarily inefficient when compared to  the one-to-infinite broadcast architecture that could cover all 210 Nielsen markets with a collective 210 GB. For the math aficionado reader, that’s using a mere 0.00042% of the broadband streaming  model. If Netflix or some other streaming service wants to complement its data offloading options—viewing NextGen Broadcast as a content delivery network extension—renting broadcast bits to  provide the exact same service at a fraction of the expense seems to be a worthwhile pursuit.

KEY: To ensure that capacity exists to provide these types of services, developing  the local, regional and national networks now is essential. That means both station  deployment and access to the full NextGen digital capacity—sunsetting the 1.0  simulcasting requirement. 

From electronic billboards to transit signs in buses, trains and taxis to  elevator screens to gas station pumps and electronic vehicle charging stations, businesses attempt to  grab our visual attention. The marketing tools are omnipresent. But content needs to get to those  places. 

Doing that efficiently and inexpensively is a datacasting service that makes broadcasting part  of a holistic 5G distribution plan for any advertiser. Sinclair’s spectrum delivery pilot on USSI  Global’s electronic vehicle charging stations is the precursor of many more applications to come. 

Augmented GPS
BitPath has demonstrated its NavPath and BitPoint systems  which can put broadcasters in the center of the fast-growing Positioning, Navigation and Timing  market while enhancing their public service commitments. Using a trivial amount of a station’s NextGen digital capacity, these enhanced GPS services can provide vast improvements to location  accuracy for an unlimited number of users, vehicles and devices – all at a small fraction of the cost of  existing services. 

These new BitPath service offerings will support dozens of use cases, including  Internet of Things applications, autonomous vehicle tracking, precise drone delivery, and emergency  response. BitPath has committed to make NavPath and BitPoint available to first responders at  no cost. 

Advanced Emergency Information
The targeting and IP capabilities built into  the NextGen Broadcast standard make advanced emergency information services a natural fit for  broadcasters. The expanded capacity of NextGen broadcasts combined with its pinpoint targeting  capabilities enables more than a simple crawl on the screen warning of a crisis. 

Now, viewers can see  the weather report, Doppler Radar images, evacuation routes, and shelter locations, and hear them in  multiple languages. Similarly, a hazmat spill, school lockdown or AMBER alert can be targeted to  specific geographic regions, and viewers can have instant access to critical information. 

And since  the robust over-the-air broadcast system architecture is based on a “one-to-infinite” capability (where  the system can never be overloaded), it provides a RELIABLE and dramatic enhancement to current  emergency notifications, especially in relation to the fragile cell phone system that does not weather  storms or natural catastrophes well.  

Redundant First Responder Platform
KEY: NextGen Broadcasting can save lives. It’s imperative that the government  act swiftly and decisively to accelerate NextGen Broadcasting deployment with  access to all of a station’s NextGen digital capacity, enabling these critical services.  

In a successful display of the advanced  emergency datacasting features of the NextGen Broadcast standard, SpectraRep recently  demonstrated a sophisticated deployment of advanced interagency sharing protocols for emergency  communications in connection with the 2022 U.S. Marine Corps Marathon.

 It did the same for  activities surrounding the July 4th celebrations in the nation’s capital. The company deployed its  redundant datacasting solution during the complex and dynamic security event to deliver encrypted  video, alerts, and file sharing among eight public safety agencies. 

All data was delivered securely  over-the-air on a broadcast station without the need for internet or wireless data transmission (LTE) services. With NextGen datacasting, public safety departments can communicate and exchange alerts  without having to rely on cellular systems that can become overloaded at large scale events.  

KEY: FCC, please take note. This is a life-saving application of NextGen  Broadcasting. Access to all of a station’s NextGen Broadcast capacity can hasten  these services. 

NextGen’s datacasting capabilities are being specifically targeted for  enhanced e/ and distance learning. The need for these services was dramatically demonstrated during  the COVID pandemic as educators struggled to reach students where broadband connectivity was  limited or unavailable. 

All broadcast stations—commercial and public—will have the capability to  improve the learning environment of students significantly across the country, especially in places  where the Internet just doesn’t reach. In cooperation with SpectraRep, Sinclair has been demonstrating  those services over existing NextGen stations. Today that’s done with a separate reception box—a  gateway—but tomorrow the reception capability will be built into all receivers. 

Developing the Distribution Network
The datacasting use cases described above are just the  low hanging fruit. Many, many additional applications are waiting to emerge as we devise tools and  protocols to aggregate NextGen Broadcast spectrum. 

Two additional fundamental requirements are  also under development that will help spread these sophisticated new services offerings. They are: 

CORE NETWORK. Connecting multiple NextGen-transmitting stations with potential  customers in need of diverse datacasting capacity is a critical new but economically rewarding  challenge. Never before have we had the ability to connect television stations logically as a  distribution platform. Stations existed as islands—separate, independently addressable, disparate  entities. 

We now have the ability to link them. That infrastructure does not yet fully exist but is in an  active planning stage. Cutting edge broadcasters are on the cusp of designing, building, and operating  an innovative and interconnected broadcast platform intended to provide a wireless broadcast  backbone for IP data delivery across the country. 

ATSC, itself is supporting some of this activity  through a Specialist Group to develop standards for a “core network” that will enable datacasting and  permit it to scale across multiple stations and markets.  

BROADCAST MARKET EXCHANGE (BMX). Maximizing the efficiency of matching  aggregated spectrum capacity from multiple broadcasters with the needs of data users is the holy grail  of an efficient datacasting network. 

This will eventually be accomplished in the cloud using artificial  intelligence in a broadcast market exchange—BMX—giving data users and other distribution platform  operators an alternative distribution tool. Sinclair has been at the forefront of designing the  underlining BMX superstructure that will be integral to the core backbone network. 

KEY: Creators and innovators need an environment to succeed. A network this  complex doesn’t just happen. It requires advanced planning and, importantly, a  regulatory environment that nourishes this type of evolution. 

Within 15 years, broadcasters will make as much money selling their bits for data distribution as they will for selling commercial ads in TV programs.

How’s that for an incentive for broadcasters to begin deploying NextGen Broadcast services? We  are at an existential pivot point in time where the fundamental basis of our industry is at stake.  Fortunately, we’ve met the technological challenge to keep our businesses relevant.  

KEY: We now have a data delivery pipe that is the envy of the world— integrated  with the Internet and reaching mobile viewers with targeted programming and ads,  ultra-rich video and audio programs reaching deep into buildings. Perhaps most  important, we now are at the table for a myriad of NEW businesses apart from linear  TV. It’s now time to capitalize on it. 

Jerald Fritz

Jerry Fritz is Executive Vice President for Strategic and Legal Affairs for ONE Media 3.0, LLC, a subsidiary of Hunt Valley, Maryland-based, Sinclair Broadcast Group.  Jerry oversees long term strategic planning, legal affairs and public policy for the company, supporting the adoption and implementation of the broadcast industry’s “NextGen” broadcast transmission standard. He also oversees Sinclair’s participation in domestic and international spectrum policy matters and its intellectual property portfolio. Jerry came to ONE Media in 2014 after serving as the long-time General Counsel and head of Strategic Planning for television station group owner, Allbritton Communications Company, and its affiliate, POLITICO.  Previously, Jerry served as Chief of Staff to FCC Chairman Mark Fowler and a primary architect of deregulatory efforts in the broadcasting and telecommunications industries.  Prior to joining the Chairman’s staff, he was in private law practice specializing in communications issues and taught on the adjunct faculty at George Mason University Law School.  With virtually his entire 50+ year career spent in and around the broadcasting and telecommunications business, Jerry has lectured extensively and testified before Congress on communications law, policy, and the future of the telecommunications industry, including distribution platforms. He served as a Director on the NAB TV Board where he chaired the Task Force for a virtual trade show and served on the NAB’s Digital Television Task Force as well as its EEO, Web Streaming, and Copyright Committees. He is a long-time member of NAB’s Broadcast Leadership Training faculty.  Jerry is a past Governor of the ABC Affiliates Association chairing its Government Relations Committee and leading its NewsOne revision team. He is also a former Director of the Media Law Resource Center, chairing its Pre-Publication Committee and a former American Bar Association Communications Law Forum Governing Committee member and a past Forum Division Chair.